Expressions of Christmas: Angels
Rev. Louis Timberlake
December 20, 2015
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her
You know, a sentence can change your life.
I’ve never been an overly anxious person, but the weekend I proposed to Kate, I was a nervous wreck. We had spent the day tubing down the New River, then had dinner in Blowing Rock. After dinner, I asked her if she wanted to go drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She was tired and not really interested, but I think she could tell that I considered it pretty important. I’m usually great at keeping secrets, but that weekend, I was as transparent as polished glass. So, she agreed to go. We got out on the Parkway and had to drive a few miles before we could an occupied overlook. Once we did, we got out of the car and sat in the grass at the top of a steep incline, sipping wine, looking up at the stars and out over the lights of the towns in the Yadkin Valley. We sat there for a while, until Kate decided that, apparently, I wasn’t actually going to pop the question that evening. The truth is, I was so nervous that I didn’t know how to start. A large portion of my job involves coming up with words that are hopefully interesting and then speaking them to crowds of people, but I had no idea what to say that night. It was worse that being unprepared in front of thousands of people. Finally, though, she hinted that she was ready to leave and forced my hand. I took the ring out of my pocket, where it had been for the past five hours, fumbled to put it on her finger in the dark, and asked her that question, “will you marry me?” She said yes, if you haven’t guessed. Much later, she gave me a little grief about not getting down on one knee, but, in my defense, we were both already sitting on the ground and I’m pretty sure that, if I had gotten on one knee on that incline, I would have tumbled down the side of the mountain.
There are certain sentences that change your life. There are those happy ones, like “Will you marry me?” Or, when you say, “I love you” for the first time. Or, “you’ve been accepted.” Or, “I’m pregnant”—though that one can be both happy and stressful, or even downright frightening.
Not all are happy. There are the sentences that make your heart hit the floor. “We need to talk.” “The scans showed something and we need to do more tests.” Or, “You may want to sit down for this.”
And, then, there are the ones that leave deep, painful wounds. “I want a divorce.” “There’s nothing more we can do.” “Goodbye.”
The traditional name for this whole event with Gabriel and Mary is The Annunciation, annunciation simply being an archaic term for announcement. The interesting thing about this passage is that I think the angel Gabriel misreads Mary’s initial reaction. After greeting her, he says, “Do not be afraid.” But, nowhere does it say that Mary was afraid. It says she was greatly troubled or perplexed. It’s interesting, because we just assume that Mary was overwhelmed with fear at this event, but that’s not what it says. It says, “She pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” She senses that this is one of those phrases that is going to change the trajectory of her life, but her question is, “In what way?”
It’s not a bad question. What Mary gathers from this greeting is that, somehow, she has gained God’s attention. And that is a little troubling to her. Being a good Jewish girl, she would have grown up with stories of the men and women in the Hebrew Scriptures that received special attention from God—and it was kind of a mixed bag. Most of those people dealt with more than their fair share of adversity along the way to doing something significant. David became king, but only after surviving a number of assassination attempts from the previous king. Moses led the people out of Egypt, but then wandered through the wilderness, listening to their complaining, for the rest of his life. Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, but only after almost starting a Hatfield-McCoy level feud with his brother, Esau. Esther saved her people from the petty grudge of Haman, the grand vizier to the Persian king, but only by risking her life.
So, when Gabriel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” She isn’t quite sure how to respond. She isn’t quite sure she wants the attention.
It’s like that moment at the beginning of The Hobbit, when Gandalf the Grey wanders up to Bilbo Baggins’ doorstep, “looking for someone to share in an adventure,” and Biblo responds, “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
The truth is, Mary’s initial reaction is justified. Fast-forward through Mary’s life. She is ridiculed by others; she almost loses her fiancé; they’re forced to flee to Egypt to escape Herod; she doesn’t live a luxurious life. Once Jesus moves into the public eye, she receives plenty of unwanted attention. Plus, like any mother, she worries about her son, who starts to pick up some powerful enemies. Then, her worst fear comes to fruition as her oldest child is arrested, beaten, and executed.
The angel says “favored one,” but it sure doesn’t feel like favor. It doesn’t include health, wealth, and carefree living. Mary’s life doesn’t get easier after this event.
But, listen to Gabriel’s words. Gabriel’s message is not, “Your life is going to be easy and without pain.” Gabriel’s message is, “God is with you and, through you, God is going to do something great.”
We forget sometimes that the Bible isn’t a collection of children’s stories. It isn’t a collection of simple stories with easily digested moral lessons and predictable happy endings. It is a collection of stories that are all a part of the larger story of God seeking to redeem Creation. It is the story of God trying to take what has been broken and make it whole. Of God working through unlikely people to mend the wounds of the world. God doesn’t assure us that our lives will be easy, but invites us into roles within the larger story of what God is doing. The variable is in the way we respond to that invitation.
You know, when I was in high school, I told my youth director that I felt like God was calling me to be a pastor. I couldn’t pin it on one pivotal moment. I didn’t have an angel appear to me or the skies open up and a bright light shine down. Far too often we look for the big event. We say, “God, show me a sign.” But, God tends to be a little more subtle than that. For me, it was a series of experiences over time that help me to come to see within myself certain gifts and passions that aligned with pastoral ministry. I discovered what truly brought me alive when I was asked to preach on Youth Sunday, to facilitate small groups, to lead a devotional on a mission trip, to dream about ways to help others connect with the church, to serve as a youth representative on Church Council—and I don’t know how many people can say they realized a call to ministry while sitting in Church Council meetings.
My junior year, my youth director invited me to attend a retreat for high school and college students discerning a call to ministry. I spent a weekend meeting others my age that felt like God was calling them in some way and listening to adults that had followed a range of callings. All of them had followed an invitation to be a part of healing the brokenness in unique ways, based upon their God-given gifts and passions. For some, the invitation was a single event changed the direction of their life. For others, it was a gradually unfolding sense of God calling them to something. The invitation was different for each person.
Around that same time, a leader in my youth group shared with me his sense of calling. He was a high school English teacher and, to him, helping those students to mature inside and outside the classroom was his way of mending the brokenness in the world. I think also about Mark Richt, former coach of my Bulldogs and new coach at Miami. For him, helping those players to grow as men is at least as important as winning football games. It is his way of healing the brokenness in the world.
What is your way of healing the brokenness? What invitation has God given you to be a part of mending the wounds of our world? What is your annunciation?
The annunciation to Mary begins, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” The thing is, I don’t know that this is the best translation for our context. For example, “greetings” doesn’t really convey the energy behind that Greek word. “Rejoice” is a little closer to the mark. Also, another common translation of the word here for “favor” is “grace.” And, grace is possibly a more helpful translation. When we hear favor, we think privilege. We think about a select few. But, God’s grace is available to all. So, another possibility, one that I think better captures it in our tongue is, “Rejoice, grace-filled one! The Lord is with you!”
What comes after is the specifics of Mary’s role in the larger story. Her part in the work of making whole what is broken. But, that first part is the beginning of the annunciation for each one of us. It is a statement that can change lives, if we let it. What comes after is specific to our individual callings. But, for each of us, it starts like this: “Rejoice, no matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done, because God’s grace is available to you, if you will embrace it. God’s grace is at work in you, if you will allow it to transformed you. Whether you believe it or not, God is with you.”
How does the rest of it go, for you? What is the rest of your annunciation? What invitation has God given you to be a part of the larger story?
You know, the incredible thing about Mary is how she responds to Gabriel’s message. She has every reason to be wary. Young as she is, she knows that faithfulness to God doesn’t guarantee a carefree life. Yet, she recognizes the message for what it is, an invitation to be a part of God’s larger story. To give her life to something greater than herself. The angel says, “rejoice” and she rejoices in what God has done in her life and what God will do through her. She accepts the invitation to be a part of bringing wholeness to a broken world.
Later this week, we will gather together for our Eve and Eve Eve services, services that celebrate the light that has come into the world, in part because of Mary’s willingness to embrace God’s invitation. We gather and celebrate that God goes to the greatest of lengths to renew each one of us and all of Creation. And yet, it is not something God does alone, but something for which we all have responsibility. We all have an invitation to play a part. What is your invitation? How is God calling you to not just read the story, not just listen to the story, but to be a character in the story? To help it reach the hope-filled conclusion of peace on earth and good will towards all people. And how are you responding to that invitation?
- What are some sentences or phrases that have changed your life?
- How do you understand Mary’s initial reaction of wariness?
- What do you think about the idea that each of us have received an invitation that begins “Rejoice, grace-filled one. God is with you.”
- Where have you experienced God’s grace at work in your life?
- What is your unique invitation or calling, as you understand it so far?
- How does God call you to participate in making whole what is broken?
- How are you or how can you respond to that invitation? Be specific.